One of the most important and beloved co-creators of the Beatles Yellow Submarine film has passed away: John Coates, who served as what would be today be called Line Producer on the film, though his screen credit was listed as production supervisor. Coates passed away on the 17th of September 2012 at the age of 85, as reported here:
I first interviewed John Coates in 1993 for my book about the making of the Yellow Submarine film. We first met in person in 1997 and these photos here were all taken during that gathering and mini-reunion of subbers in London on August 19th, 1997. You can see we were having a rollicking good time that day!
John Coates Hugging Bob Hieronimus at mini-Yellow Sub Reunion in London August 19, 1997
John Coates Reunites with Maggie Button, Who Worked Trace and Paint on Yellow Submarine
John Coates raising in the air his new Yellow Submarine wristwatch just given to him as a gift by Dr. Bob Hieronimus 8/19/97.
Cheers John! John Coates sharing in wine and good fellowship at a mini Yellow Submarine reunion gathered by TVC to meet author Bob Hieronimus in London August 19, 1997.
These meetings blossomed into the 30th anniversary party for the Yellow Submarine that Hieronimus & Co. hosted along with TVC in 1998. We rented the BBC Maida Vale studios, and that was when Apple Corps requested our permission to send a camera crew where they captured all the interviews they used as DVD extras on the revised version of the film they released in 1999. We were pleased to return to Liverpool that year for the full red carpet treatment given to the co-creators for their work on this film at the premiere of this first restoration – long overdue credit.
Following are some excerpts from my many interviews with John Coates, some of which can be found in my book, Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic, available at 21stCenturyRadio.com here.
As the effective moving force behind TVC London, John Coates’ bio and list of producing credits is nearly identical to that of TVC. He began his career at the Rank Organisation 1948/1955, where he joined as a trainee studying exhibition, production and distribution. He than worked within the international distribution arm of the company in the Far East and Spain. He worked behind the scenes for Associated Redifusion 1955/1957 helping to set up the company at the beginning of Commercial Television in England as assistant to the Controller of Programmes. In 1957 he helped form the original company, TV Cartoons, Ltd. where he continued to work until his death. In the beginning he acted as producer and business director until 1979. He then became the majority shareholder and managing director, and acted as producer on all their productions listed in Inside the Yellow Submarine.
TV Cartoons or TVC London was formed by George Dunning in 1957 and he immediately gathered as his partners several people who would have enormous impact on Yellow Submarine. The following is excerpted from TVC’s own “Potted History.”
1957-1966: TV commercials and shorts – two British Academy Awards in 1962 and 1964; 1966-1968 The Beatles Series, ABC-TV. 1967-1968: The Yellow Submarine; A Shot in the Dark; Canada is My Piano. 1968-1978: TV Commercials and Shorts. 1978-1979: The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. 1980-1981: Two sequences of Heavy Metal for Columbia Pictures. 1982: Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman – nominated for an Oscar, won the British Academy Award for the best children’s film and won many other awards including the European Prix Jeunnesse. 1986-1987: Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows – with a title song from David Bowie and performances by Sir John Mill and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, winning at the Chicago Film Festival and best Feature Film at Annecy. 1988-1989: John Burningham's Granpa – with Peter Ustinov as the voice of Granpa and Sara Brightman singing the theme song, winning the Prix Jeunesse in 1990. 1991: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas voiced by Mel Smith, winning the best TV Film Award at the Annecy Film Festival. 1993: Six half hours of The World of Peter Rabbit & Friends, winning awards in Chicago, Portugal and two CableACE awards in Los Angeles. 1995: Three more half-hours of The World of Peter Rabbit & Friends; Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. 1996: William Horwood’s The Willows in Winter; Posy Simmonds’ Famous Fred, winning a British Academy Award, the Grand Prix at the Annecy Animation Festival and was Oscar nominated in 1998; Raymond Briggs’ The Bear, winning a Peabody Award for Excellence, Best Children’s Film at BAR, Best Television Film at Annecy ’99 and many other awards.
Since George Dunning passed away in 1979, John Coates continued the tradition of excellence as the managing director of TVC. Norman D. Kauffman who served as “tea boy” on Yellow Submarine became company director, until his own retirement several years ago.
John was perhaps the most beloved of the co-creators on Yellow Submarine, and one of my favorite stories really demonstrates the loyalty that the crew felt for him. In the middle of production on Yellow Sub, there was a brewing dispute between the American producers and the British producers, and at one point the future of the independence for TVC studios was threatened. Several of the more daring on the crew decided they needed some collateral to make their point, and they stealthily moved in one night to abscond with several reels of finished negatives and artwork to match. They kept the film safe from “the suits” and succeeded in keeping the film under the control of the artists. Here’s how John Coates described to me in 1998 how it went down:
Bob Hieronimus: I remember when were sitting at the Italian place eating last year and you described to me how you guys snuck into the studio at night. Is that how it happened?
John Coates: First of all, we decided to take the two cut negs out of Rank’s laboratories, the film laboratories.
Bob Hieronimus: The cut negatives?
John Coates: The cut negatives. I phoned up the night supervisor. We knew all the people at Ranks. The film was in the name of TV Cartoons Limited, so I said we’re coming down at midnight to remove these negs and we drove down and removed the negs. The next night we, with our wives, went into the Soho Square premises sent the night supervisor, trace and paint, who was on the night shift, and her girls home. And it’s funny, that lady is an Australian lady who appeared in London last week, or was it just before Christmas? Just before Christmas. We hadn’t seen her since the Yellow Submarine. That girl I was sort of fond of, actually, and still has got nice legs, Norman says (laughter). Maggie Geddes. And she came to see us, and we all went out for a drink, and she was remembering -- because I remember when I sent her home that night they had a deadline to meet in the morning for scenes ready for camera, and she just burst into tears and said, “Well, we wont’ be able to do it!” I said, “Don’t worry, Maggie, just don’t worry. Go home. Take everybody home.” And once they’d gone we then got all the art work from those two sequences that matched the neg cut and carried them down box by box by box right through the night and loaded up these two little minivans that our wives had. In those days there were mini vans because there was no tax on them. And both our wives had mini vans. George had a very nice house in Pembroke Square, which is sort of West London, Kensington Way, and so we loaded all the boxes. They filled two mini vans exactly, and we drove them down and put the boxes in his basement, and then we all went off to one of the hotels in London, which was open all night, and had breakfast. It would be about 5:00 in the morning. A bacon and eggs breakfast.
Bob Hieronimus: Oh, I wish I had one of those now. What happened that day? Did you work that day?
John Coates: Yes. Everything in the morning was back to normal.
Bob Hieronimus: Back to normal. So nobody knew what had happened.
John Coates: Yes, only those people who wondered why they’d been sent home that night. Norman got shouted at by Abe Goodman because the stuff wasn’t ready in the morning.
Bob Hieronimus: But they didn’t suspect? Abe Goodman and Al Brodax had no suspicions?
John Coates: No, no.
Bob Hieronimus: It was a moment of great genius on your part, guys.
John Coates: They couldn't have done any – I mean if we wanted to be really beastly, you know, a third of the film was not there and not easily replaced.
Bob Hieronimus: I’m so glad you guys moved so quickly. I’m afraid in today’s time period people would sit around and wonder if they should do something. At least that’s what would happen over here. They would spend a week and a half in committees trying to determine whether they should do something. By then it would be all over.
The retribution for the artists’ rebellion would follow, however. Most noticeably, in the diminished on-screen credits given to John Coates and TV Cartoons.
John Coates: On all our films, I have a minimum of administrative people. I like to think all the money goes up on the screen. And so I worked quite hard actually, nights, and days, and weekends. They didn’t have that term in those days, but nowadays they have this thing called a Line Producer, which is very much the hands-on of a live action film putting together, wheeling and dealing. And I suppose really that was my job on the Yellow Submarine. I was a Line Producer on it. I think it says “in charge of production” or something like that but Al [Brodax] didn’t want to give me credit at all.
Bob Hieronimus: He didn’t want to give you a credit at all?
John Coates: No.
Bob Hieronimus: Gee whiz, John. How can the guy live with himself? That’s unbelievable.
John Coates: I know. That’s true, too, you know. I can’t believe it either. He didn’t want TVC’s name on there, and so some credits became sort of a compromise with TV Cartoons and mine together. I can’t remember how the wording goes to be honest. No, he didn’t.
The constantly swelling staff of extra painters and tracers hired to help speed the film to its 11-month deadline cost a bit more money than anticipated. John Coates says TVC had to come up with an extra £25,000 out of its own pockets and limped across the finish line to celebrate its critical success while on the verge of bankruptcy. Sadly, after having been fired up artistically with the enthusiasm of Yellow Submarine, the TVC team was forced to return to the world of advertising commercials to restore its solvency.
George Dunning, the Director of the film told John Canemaker in “One Has To Live,” Animafilm, No.3, pp. 32-39, that “the film made money left and right. But it didn’t for TVC and very nearly bust us. That’s a very long and very bitter story. We had a really nasty time of it. We went over the budget, not a large amount over. The producer people through King Features organized to take over the company. We learned an awful lot. Very bitter situation. After it was all over it got smoothed down. We repaired our relationship with King Features. But the whole thing was very sour.”
George Martin, Beatles producer and Music Director on the film told me in 1995: “John Coates is a very wise man. They had a deadline to meet, they had bills to pay, which they were finding more and more difficult to meet because they were having to engage new artists all the time. They had to increase the animation staff in order to cope with the deadline. The production had to be stepped up and they just ran out of money. I don’t think they ever made any money out of it. I don’t think George Dunning ever made any money.
In closing this sendoff tribute to the spirit of John Coates, I share his answer to the question I asked all the 40+ co-creators of Yellow Submarine I have interviewed: “How did the Yellow Submarine change your life?”
John’s answer was “Well, I fell in love with somebody working on it, and went off with her. She did change my life. I’ve been together with her for over 30 years now. How’s that?”
In other words, Brother John, “All You Need Is Love”. How’s that? We join the rest of the crew of Yellow Submarine, and countless other animation fans of your other films in raising a toast to you. We all love you, John Coates!
From Bob Balser, co-director of animation on the film, to Dr. Bob Hieronimus
Dear Dr. Bob,
Lovely tribute! So many times he mentioned to us how much he appreciated all you have done for "Yellow Submarine" Yes, we'll all miss him - Bob is very saddened. He was a very special person, in all ways.
Love to all,
Cima & Bob Balser
See our other exclusive articles on Yellow Submarine and order my book at our Yellow Submarine page at 21stCenturyRadio.com.
Thank you letter from John Coates to Bob Hieronimus 1993 after gifting him with his first Corgi collectible Yellow Submarine model.